Monday 2 October 2006

Christophe Chalamet: dialectical theologians

“It is strange to realize that we are so close to each other and yet speak such different languages” – with these words, Karl Barth summed up his relationship to his old friend and nemesis, Rudolf Bultmann.

The relationship between Barth and Bultmann is one of the most fascinating and most perplexing subplots in the story of modern theology. From these two thinkers sprung the two dominant schools of twentieth-century theology – and while they had originally viewed themselves as allies in a common cause, Barth and Bultmann came to regard each other with mutual hostility, aversion, and above all bewilderment. Given all this, it’s unfortunate that so few books have explored in detail the relationship between these two theological giants.

So it was a real joy to discover Christophe Chalamet’s impressive new study: Dialectical Theologians: Wilhelm Herrmann, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann (Zurich: TVZ, 2005) – and I’m grateful to TVZ for kindly sending me a review copy. In this book, Chalamet offers the most comprehensive exploration to date of the relationship between Barth and Bultmann.

Chalamet’s basic argument is that, in their early years, no one influenced Barth and Bultmann more decisively than their teacher at Marburg, Wilhelm Herrmann. It was here, as young students under Herrmann, that Barth and Bultmann found the basic insights that would lead to the development of their “dialectical theology.” From their earliest days as students, they were both struggling to do the same thing, to fight “against both the left and the right of the theological spectrum” (p. 13), against both “the liberal and orthodox schools” (p. 80).

From Herrmann, these two students learned that God can be spoken of only dialectically. We cannot speak of God with just one word. Instead, there must be at least two words, two opposing statements: thesis and antithesis, “the dogmatic and the critical, the Yes and the No, the unveiling and the veiling, objectivity and subjectivity” (p. 148). The point of such dialectics is not to find a neutralising synthesis or a “middle way” – rather, in the tension between thesis and antithesis, the theologian “leaves a space free in the middle and hopes that God himself will intervene, since only God can say his Word” (p. 148).

Drawing on such a dialectical method, Barth set out to be “more conservative than the conservatives and more liberal than the liberals” (p. 124). When he wrote his explosive commentary on Romans, very few people had the dialectical frame of mind necessary to understand it – but, as a good Herrmannian, Bultmann was one of the few theologians in Europe who appreciated what Barth was trying to do. For his part, under the influence of Herrmann, Bultmann was able to clarify his own theological programme as early as 1925 – and he would then “spend the rest of his life trying to unfold the consequences” of his Herrmannian heritage (p. 164).

It was precisely here, however, that the conflict between Barth and Bultmann had its roots. For, as early as 1925, Barth was bidding “a theological farewell to Herrmann” (p. 177). His crucial step was to reverse Herrmann’s dialectic of Law and Gospel – in Barth’s view, the Yes of the Gospel must precede the No of the Law. Bultmann, on the other hand, remained a faithful disciple of Herrmann (and a faithful Lutheran), and his whole theological programme was radically driven by the primacy of Law over Gospel, by a belief that “the No of [God’s] judgement … conceals the Yes of God’s grace” (p. 199).

As Chalamet persuasively argues, an understanding of the dialectical character of Bultmann’s theology allows us better to appreciate some of the most controversial aspects of Bultmann’s work – e.g. his Sachkritik, his polemic against the Jesus of history, his demythologising, and his existentialist exegesis. For instance, against the common objection that Bultmann made theology a servant of existentialist philosophy, Chalamet points out that Bultmann understood the philosophy-theology relationship dialectically. And while Bultmann’s “demythologising” has so often been caricatured and misunderstood, Chalamet highlights the fundamental dialectic at the basis of demythologising – a dialectic between scripture and Scripture, between human words and the Word of God.

In any case, as the years went by, Barth and Bultmann were increasingly aware of the great distance between them. By 1937, Bultmann was insisting that he no longer read Barth’s Dogmatics, since “it is too awful” (p. 262). And, in turn, Barth reacted with horror to Bultmann’s demythologising, and especially to his reliance on the philosophy of Heidegger.

Still, for all their differences, Barth and Bultmann remained “dialectical theologians.” In very different ways, they were both trying to speak about the God who is hidden in his revelation; following Herrmann, their different theological programmes remained oriented around the dialectic of “the revelation of God in its concealment” (p. 250). Thus both the deep affinity and the irreconcilable differences between Barth and Bultmann were due in great part to their different ways of appropriating and modifying the theology of their early teacher, Wilhelm Herrmann.

Christophe Chalamet’s book is a first-rate study of the two most important theological thinkers of the twentieth century. It’s by far the best book yet written on the relationship between Barth and Bultmann, and it’s also essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the origins and development of that extraordinary theological movement known as “dialectical theology.” If your library hasn’t yet got a copy of Dialectical Theologians, then ask them to make amends right away!


Chris Tilling said...

Fab, I got this one out of the library few weeks ago. Now I'll have to dive in.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben.

Big question: Does Chalamet locate the genesis of Barth's dialectical method, not only in the theology of his Marburg mentor Herrmann, but also in his angst-filled steps up into the pulpit - and failure-ridden steps down from the pulpit - in Safenwil? For it was there that Barth discovered that "As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so we cannot speak of God" - and it was this discovery (I suggest) that drove Barth most immediately and urgently towards the dialectical method: walking on "this narrow ridge of rock", as Barth put it in one metaphor, trying "to imitate the flight of a bird", as he put it in another.

By the way, do you know the story of Barth's conversations with his mate Eduard Thurneysen during the writing of Romans? Thurneysen would say, "On the one hand, Karl," whereupon Barth would reply, "On the other hand, Eduard." :)

MM said...


How fascinating. Those two have been arguing in my own head since college- a pathology handed on from a professor who was fighting mad at both of them- so this will surely be helpful. Thank you.

Ben Myers said...

MM, I know what you mean about having Barth and Bultmann "fight in your head"!

You're right of course, Kim, about the role of preaching. Chalamet recognises the importance of this influence (and the influence of German war policy), but he tries to show that Barth had already begun to think "dialectically" as a young student.

In this respect, Chalamet's argument really builds on Bruce McCormack's work. McCormack has shown (against von Balthasar) that there was no division in Barth's career between a "dialectical" period and an "analogical" period. And Chalamet has now pressed this argument further, showing that Barth was not simply a card-carrying "liberal" before becoming a dialectical theologian (as Barth himself often suggests in his autobiographical reflections) -- rather, even as a student Barth already understood that both orthodoxy and liberalism had to be relativised and critiqued dialectically.

Jim said...

Yes indeed- I'm glad you found it as enthralling as it was to me!

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